“Between 1969-1972, Bab al-Tabbaneh saw the rise of an iconic figure, Ali Akkawi, who became the leader of the neighborhood’s residents after the economic wheel of the city began to slow,” he explained.
Akkawi was a leftist revolutionary who championed the rights of the poor. His Palestinian origins greatly influenced his idealism, as did his impoverished upbringing as the son of a baker.
“Though he was a journalist with Dar al-Sayyad in Beirut and enjoyed a decent social status, he was a staunch supporter of the poor residents of Bab al-Tabbaneh,” Karami said. “His old friends describe him as a romantic revolutionary who was always ready to sacrifice his life for the poor.”
Once, after a pharmacist reportedly refused to give medicine to a poor woman who promised to pay him back later, Akkawi raided the pharmacy, emptied it of its contents and distributed them among the poor.
The incident made Akkawi a wanted man, and he embraced the role of Robin Hood, becoming a vigilante for the poor. Eventually he was caught by the security forces and sent to prison, where he died. Several people claim he was poisoned.
His younger brother Khalil, known as Abu Arabi, would follow in his footsteps, becoming the leader of the neighborhood and a full-fledged warlord during the 1975-90 Civil War. He was particularly impressed by the Islamic Revolution in Iran and became convinced that Islamic ideals should inform political movements.
What distinguished Abu Arabi from his brother was his courting of intellectuals who would be instrumental in highlighting the plight of Bab al-Tabbaneh’s residents.
French thinker Michel Seurat and other prominent writers such as Nahla al-Shahhal and Elias Khoury and artist Roger Assaf were among the various intellectuals who lived in Tabbaneh to show solidarity with its residents and highlight their dire living conditions.
However, Abu Arabi’s attempt to bring the reality of life Bab al-Tabbaneh to light was cut short when he was assassinated on Feb. 6, 1985, an incident that led to intense fighting, the repercussions of which still resonate in the area today.
From the 1960s onward, Tripoli had been largely overlooked by the state, with few, if any, schools, hospitals, social centers or institutions built. This neglect eventually paved the way for the rise of other outlaws, not all of who were motivated by idealist dreams.
Several elderly Tripoli natives recalled the antics of Ahmad al-Qaddour, a local thug who was wanted by the authorities. In 1974, Qaddour formed a gang and soon gained control of the city’s old district, where he regularly threatened residents and shop owners. Qaddour believed in ruling by brute force, his famous slogan being “This country costs LL1,000” – the price of a single stick of dynamite.
Qaddour declared the old city neighborhoods “outlaw country.” His reign ended only after the state launched a military operation, much deadlier than the one being implemented today. The Army entered the old district and killed most of the armed men in the markets, especially those in the narrow alleyways of Daftardar square.
The gang leaders managed to flee the city and disappear, never to be heard from again. But their legacy prevails in the troubled city to this day.